THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO VICTORIAN CULTURE by Francis O'Gorman, ed., Reviewed by James Eli Adams

Ed. Francis O'Gorman
(Cambridge, 2010) xvi + 309 pp.
Reviewed by James Eli Adams on 2011-12-21.

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The scholarly world has never been so companionable. Over the past decade or so, presses have unleashed a torrent of companions, handbooks, and guides to literary, social, and cultural phenomena. Evidently publishers find a lucrative market for such productions. But amid the deluge, the nature and function of the proffered companionship has become more elusive. In 1973 Richard Altick prefaced his Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the Modern Reader of Victorian Literature by disavowing "originality." "Provocative ideas," he declared, "will be found in sufficient abundance in the literature itself," leaving the "companion" to provide a "background" that would enable us to better appreciate its elaboration in the "soloist," "Victorian literature itself" (ix-x). Such bold humility is almost unimaginable today. "Literature itself" has become less securely bounded, blurring the distinction of background and foreground. Scholars, moreover, have become less willing to acknowledge value in synthesis or synopsis of established knowledge; virtually every "companion" claims to represent "the current state of research"--which not only (presumably) guarantees originality, but also militates against single-author companions (since no one scholar can be abreast of every area of a field), and has the further virtue of recommending a new edition every decade or so.

In effect, then, the new companions tend to narrow the divide between student guides and scholarly articles. Their utility is most obvious when they address a single author or career, and thus offer contexts for relatively advanced coursework or for the general reader interested in seeing how academics make sense of a favorite historical figure. A companion to a literary genre or period presents more daunting challenges of organization, and "the current state of research" may not suit introductory surveys, but such volumes obviously provide guidance for more ambitious readers, and aid in developing more specialized interests.

The question of audience becomes more vexing, however, for a companion to "Victorian Culture." This is not a common course rubric, nor does it identify a focal interest for many general readers (as distinct from, say, "A Companion to Victorian History"). Perhaps as a result, Francis O'Gorman's introduction reflects some uncertainty as to readership. On the one hand, the collection is aimed at "largely literary readers," and thus recalls the familiar companion to Victorian literature, in which "culture" is still a form of background, and the volume is designed "to facilitate... turns" from its essays to "to a novel, a poem, a play, a diary, a volume of correspondence..." (11). Elsewhere, however, the volume seems addressed more to academics, particularly as it is "maintained by arguments about what and where 'Victorian culture' was" (5). Such arguments presumably depend on the knowledge for which one turns to a companion in the first place, and a reader who appreciates such arguments doesn't need to be warned that the essays "do not make up various facets of a single, complex but finally unitary claim about what constitutes 'the Victorian period'" (10). But who goes to a companion in search of such a master-plan? Surely we rely on companions primarily to rescue us from feeling lost. We seek not unity or finality but breadth of information, aids to finding one's bearings in an unfamiliar landscape.

The inescapable partiality of companionship makes for inescapable quarrels over any "selection of individual contexts" (7), but I found this companion more eccentric than most. We have chapters on "satirical print culture," "domestic arts," "music," and "Victorian literary theory" (together comprising about one-fourth of the volume) but none on religion, empire, politics, education, labor, social class, medicine, sanitation, architecture, urban life. Rather than the introductory stress on the indeterminacy of literary history, I would have appreciated a fuller rationale for these very large omissions.

Some of the gaps are partially filled by the more nimble contributors. Nicholas Daly's "Technology," the liveliest of all the chapters, gathers in social class by noting that the working class was itself "one of the most durable things manufactured in the new towns" (44), and goes on to chart the rise of a police force, the industrial novel, literary responses to telegraphs and railways, the impact of new technologies on theater and the urban landscape more generally, culminating with photography, cinematograph, phonograph and telephone, and ultimately "industrialized killing" (the one thing missing is the world of chemistry). In "War," Edward Spier gives a helpful vantage on empire, writing against the grain of recent studies that play down the prominence of the military in mid-Victorian culture; he stresses its role in upholding ideals of chivalry, and its impact on a range of writing, most notably that of Kipling. (Spier also illustrates the pitfalls of such range: Soldiers Three is not a collection of verse [95], and Sir Edwin Arnold was never the poet laureate [94].) In O'Gorman's richly suggestive treatment of "Death," he connects its prominence in a wide range of art to anxieties associated with the realms of religion and the supernatural. But I miss any account of the sectarian allegiances and antagonisms in Victorian faith that baffle so many readers today: High, Low, Broad, dissenting, evangelical, independent, let alone the nuances of particular affiliations (how might it matter that characters in a novel are Baptist rather than Methodist?)

In "Economics and Business," Timothy Alborn distills the economic theory often neglected in social history, such as the rationales for grueling working conditions that were at the heart of "the factory question." He also charts a history that illuminates the rise of the "two cultures" as a professionalized economics in the 1870s began to divide off from "literary" economics, which persisted in addressing a general reader (61). Ruth Solie's essay on "Music" is impressively concise in ranging from popular to high culture, music hall to Wagner. Kate Newey on theatre is less helpful, in part because she oversells the revisionary thrust of her argument. "[T]he standard narrative of decline and abjection" in nineteenth-century theater (125) has been challenged for some time now, and the case can be made without inflated claims for the "political and moral complexities enabled by melodramatic dramaturgy" (129)--which hardly fit her own description of Douglas Jerrold's Black-Ey'd Susan: "The play aligns poverty and moral worth, and contrasts those values with the alliance of wealth with corruption" (128). This structure may be politically and morally appealing; it is hardly "complex."

Although the topics are generally framed as instances of the manifold "cultures" of Victorian England, with each understood in a broadly ethnographic sense as "an irreducible and complex web of social forces and energies" (6), several of the essays deploy a more normative, Arnoldian sense of "culture." Bernard Lightman's "Science and Culture," which focuses on resistance to scientific naturalism, invokes the Arnold-Huxley debate in its very title, while Dennis Denisoff's ostensibly iconoclastic understanding of "Popular Culture" gives us a sort of inverted Arnoldianism. Approaching the topic from the vantage of Victorians who "regarded it as a site of ideological contestation for control of the hegemonic understanding of class, gender, commerce, morality and education" (136), Denisoff falls back on an all-too-familiar critical boilerplate, in which "it" could denote virtually any category of human experience seen through the lens of class struggle. From this angle, "popular culture" becomes an epiphenomenon of "culture," constituted by prescriptive, elite formulations of the category, which crowd aside sustained attention to the actual forms of experience that were being subjected to "hegemonic" appropriation. The "values, tastes, and interests arising from the masses," which Denisoff chides the Victorians for neglecting (139), once again are pushed into the shadows, largely reduced to the cartoon character Ally Sloper. John Strachan's "Satirical Print Culture," however, usefully supplements this account with a good deal of popular journalism, although Punch is (predictably) the central exhibit, while Matthew Rubery's "Journalism" includes the penny press and late-century "New Journalism" in its helpfully brisk and wide-ranging survey.

Elizabeth Prettejohn's "Art" engagingly approaches the topic by way of France, first to bring home the distinctiveness of English painting in mid-century French tributes, then to complicate orthodox histories of the rise of modernism by making a case for Victorian art: a case that is particularly suggestive as she carries it forward into the 1960s, with the striking rediscovery of Leighton's Flaming June. Her entry thus dovetails with Samantha Matthews's lively survey of twentieth-century reception and appropriation, "Remembering the Victorians." Nicola Humble's "Domestic Arts" offers a witty and incisive analysis of the domestic sphere as both prison and kingdom for women, and nicely elicits the various energies that went into presiding over that space. Of all the contributions, it most directly illuminates the concerns of Victorian fiction.

I put down this companion thinking that I had gained a good deal of helpful, sometimes stimulating guidance, along with some bracing stimulus to quarrel. But the volume simply is too slender and limited in its range of topics to begin to do justice to "Victorian culture," which would require a volume at least twice the size. The space limitations encourage a disabling sense of partiality, and of intellectual companionship cramped by the pressure of the bottom line.

James Eli Adams is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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